Project Canterbury

Florence Buchanan
The Little Deaconess of the South Seas

By Emlyn Jones

New York: The Macmillan Co., 1921.
London: The Central Board of Missions, 1921.

Chapter IV. Some "Dear Boys"

All seeing sight
Cleaves through the husk of things
Right to the roots and springs;
Sees at things whole,
And measures less the body than the soul.--JOHN OXENHAM.

THEY were just like other people--her "Dear Boys"; none so good but there was some bad in them, and none so bad but what she found some good in them. In judging of results, it should be remembered that when Miss Buchanan began to teach the Kanakas of Thursday Island to read their Bibles in English, most of them were quite illiterate; their ages ranged from thirty years to sixty or more, and they had therefore already passed the age when learning by rote is easy and pleasant. Further, many of them, having been snatched from their homes for the sugar plantations while mere boys, were hard to convince in later life that a Christian community had anything finer to offer them than "tucker" and ten shillings a month. Miss Buchanan, however, quite undismayed by such difficulties as appeared insuperable to many, taught the "Boys" to read their Testaments in English, meanwhile patiently preparing those who desired to be baptised. The ambitious "Boys" even launched out into sums and geography with her help in slack times at the Home, and in every way possible to her she brought brightness and hope into their lives, but it was only for such a few weeks each year that most of [23/24] them came under her influence, the exceptions being the "Boys" who found some work ashore.

For example, there was old Joe Tanna; he was old, and his wife Lilywhite was very old--but how old they were neither of them knew. They lived in a long low hut at the back of the island, where no white people lived; they kept pigs and grew pumpkins Joe went round to people's back verandahs twice daily and kindly removed the kitchen scraps from the kerosene tin hung on the nail. With these scraps he fed his pigs, and twice a year he brought, in return, a piece of very blue-looking pork--but the kindness was all on his side, because scraps bring crowds of flies. Joe had the largest eyes and mouth and the softest tones of voice of any big man I have known. He also had the gentlest way with his Lilywhite, who had a shocking temper an a roughshod tongue, and in other ways he was a most consistent Christian, to which was added real enthusiasm. Evening after evening he would walk a mile and a half to and from the back of the island to attend Miss Buchanan's class, carrying his large-print Bible in his red pocket handkerchief and covering the same ground that he had traversed twice before with his yoke of tins. On Sunday, morning and evening, he was to be seen following every part of the service in church, while each Sunday afternoon he walked over the scorching sand and rocks, the tropical sun blazing overhead, to be in the Deaconess's Bible Class; and all for love and nothing for reward; and I cannot remember that Miss Buchanan ever had to admonish Joe.

And there was Bob Sing II.--it sounds like a great public school, because there was also a Bob Sing I. He stood to the South Sea "Boys" as Mr. Kashiwagi did to the Japanese; only he had such a bad temper that, although he had some method of curbing it for his Teacher, she frequently had to admonish him on the score of his "Scottiness" to the "Boys," as she laughingly [24/25] called it. "Bob, he too much boss" was the frequent complaint, but although Bob lacked the first quality of leadership, namely, humility, he possessed several other important attributes; for example, he believed in himself and sought to make others do the same, so even while he sulked he worked away as verger of the Cathedral, and made the brasses shine, and whitened the steps, and Saturday afternoons were spent in walking the length of the island in the baking sun, to gather the white goat-flowers for the altar, and no hand but his own, even at the festivals, ventured to mass them on the flower frames for the vases, for no one could do them like him. He also kept the floors and tables of the South Sea Home scrubbed white, and made the "Boys" pay up their boarding money regularly, and did the gardening in the Cathedral grounds; but his grievance against the world was a very real one. No one could find him a wife; his only bosom friend was a sulphur-crested cockatoo, and he set his heart on getting a wife; for years Miss Buchanan failed to find anyone up to schedule requirements, flightiness being a first disqualification. At last he decided to lavish his affections upon the seventeen-year-old native nurse to the vicarage baby, named Topsy. Topsy was both fascinating and good, but, to his dismay, she preferred minding the vicarage baby; he had possibly thought that the superior position he occupied in the community would counterbalance any adverse considerations, such as his thin grey locks, his severe countenance and thick gold-rimmed spectacles. But Miss Buchanan never failed him, nor he her. In all her plans for the "Boys," Bob was her confidant and counsellor. He could work the lantern with her just to her liking. On dark nights he would be at her door with the storm lantern to light her way, while on such nights as her foot was at its worst and she walked on crutches, Bob captained a little team of "boys" who carried her in a cane chair which he had rigged up on poles. And when Deaconess could [25/26] not take the class (even if they carried her there) because she was laid low with a "bad head," then Bob would assume command and lead the Bible reading, prayers, and hymns, taking off his glasses and rubbing them with his handkerchief when a word proved too hard for him.

Moses (I never heard him called any other name) was heir to a very warm corner in Miss Buchanan's heart, despite the fact that after many weary hours on many hot evenings, she failed to initiate him into the mysteries of reading or writing the symbols of the English language, but sixty was late in life to begin, so both teacher and pupil gave up worrying and at the classes he was content to listen. So little and ugly was Moses, I never saw his like. One evening Teacher was explaining to her "Boys," in her own inimitable manner, the character of the Kingdom of Heaven--how that black and white, rich and poor, ugly and handsome, all alike must at the gate of heaven leave behind them their earthly possessions, even their bodies, appearing before God only as souls, shining or shrivelled according as their daily deeds had shaped them. As the gentle words flowed from her lips and the light shone from her eyes great tears of joy rolled down Moses' wrinkled ebony cheeks; his simple child-like soul had caught the vision.

Jack Cha-Cha was a constant joy to Deaconess's heart; caught in the net of her good influence while only about twenty, his happy transparent nature quickly yielded to the impress of Christian teaching, and many a white man with generations of Christianity behind him, might well have envied the facility with which he appeared daily to practise the finer Christian graces of smiling cheerfulness, quiet humility, and ready service.

He was not clever at reading and writing, but loved the school and was steadfast in his devotion to his church. Later he married a Christian girl at the Mitchell River [26/27] Mission in the Gulf, and to-day with his wife and little family he lives on a new outstation of which he is the pioneer superintendent.

Space forbids that the tale of the "Boys" should be prolonged, so we will only speak of two others, who were "hard cases."

Peter had been a Christian in his own island, where he had been adopted by a white trader, whose surname he carried. He had a quick wit and facile tongue, was about forty, always wore a silver ring, and had an arresting cast in one eye. His laugh had a wistful sadness in it. It was more than a twice-told tale, that when the monsoon broke and the "Boys" came home, Peter did not appear, and Deaconess knew that he had succumbed again to whisky. So she must institute a search of the Chinese gambling dens, and among the drinking ne'er-do-wells at the back of the island, and Peter when found would shamefacedly confess that all his money was gone and he had no "shore" clothes. Still even that difficulty would be overcome by the generosity of the other "Boys," and during the weeks ashore Peter regained some of his health and would again ask to "sign the pledge" to help him hold out, which he would do perhaps for two years; but for these poor "Boys" there were so many ready to drag them down, so few to help them up; no wife or mother; it was Deaconess alone who never failed them.

And lastly "Jack"! There were so many "Jacks," but he was "Gentleman Jack," as "manners makyth man". On Sundays he stood among the "boys," none had such an immaculate suit of white duck, none had such shining black curls, none so broad a smile with such a show of regular white teeth; and none sang the hymns more lustily Yet time and again, when Deaconess made up the list of names for baptism, Jack's had to be crossed off; Joe and Bob both counselled he must do better first, though it was such a temptation to be easy [27/28] with Jack, he was so generous and good tempered. Deaconess knew he was trying to serve two masters, and though she longed that "Gentleman Jack" might be within the sheepfold of the Church, she had never been known to sacrifice principles to expediency. Jack must tread the path of hard self-discipline. The first step in the right way was the giving up of his place as house-boy at one of the Thursday Island hotels, an attractive life to him but full of temptations; he then signed on as a boat hand on a pearling lugger, which occupation kept him out at sea for months together. So, step by step, Deaconess led Jack on to the door of the sheepfold, though it would have been years quicker and worlds easier to let him, climb in some other way.

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